From Chutney to Pho: CLE Asian Fest
The 7th Annual Cleveland Asian Festival
Just a few blocks east of downtown Cleveland sits one of the most vibrant and diverse neighborhoods in all of Cleveland. Unfortunately, it's often overlooked by typical passersby.
Many locals often hoard their knowledge of this little neighborhood in fear that outsiders might discover the worldly flavors and hard-to-find goods captured inside the more than 20 restaurants and dozens of shops dotting the urban streets.
It's Cleveland's AsiaTown running from East 18th to East 40th streets, and from St. Clair to Perkins avenues. And, if there's ever a way to describe it, we'd call it a diamond in the rough.
You could absolutely take a day or two and peruse each and every AsiaTown hotspot- noshing on everything from Korean barbeque (complete with tabletop grill) to Laotian larb.
But, we've got a better way to experience AsiaTown: The 7th Annual Cleveland Asian Festival on East 27th Street/Payne Avenue, May 21 - 22.
When Johnny Wu developed the idea of hosting such a festival six years ago, his interest went far beyond simply celebrating Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.
Put simply, he wanted to showcase Asiatown and its dozens and dozens of unique businesses along this east side corridor flanking downtown.
"This is a very diverse neighborhood. We have Tyler Village, two shopping mall areas, great restaurants and five Asian grocery stores. But you're also seeing Asian and non-Asian businesses in the neighborhood working together to make the area thrive," Wu said.
And, now, seven years later, the AsiaTown neighborhood is blossoming, as it prepares to welcome as many as 50,000 people to its annual free festival.
Like with all good Cleveland festivals, food is a definite highlight.
"We make sure that the people vending food at the Cleveland Asian Festival are providing high-quality Asian meals," Wu said. "We don't want visitors to think they're just coming to any regular festival. We want them to be able to enjoy the best of Asian cuisine."
The food vendors hail from many of the neighborhood's culturally rich restaurants. In previous years, you'd be noshing on mango cake from Koko Bakery, a big bowl of vermicelli thanks to #1 Pho and plenty of hearty chutney from Flavors of India.
But don't be surprised if you see some immigrant grandmas cooking up the good stuff at many of the cultural heritage stands like the Laotian Association of Cleveland.
The festival continues with an impressive array of cultural entertainment held on two stages that might include traditional Korean dance with masks and fans, Japanese taiko drumming, Indian folk dance and Filipino troupes.
And, this year, the Cleveland Asian Festival will feature a national performing act. Though it has yet to be announced, we're being promised that it'll fall into the "blow-your-mind" category.
If you're in the mood for something on the weird-ish side, let us recommend taking part in some competitive eating contests, which are a big hit every year. Take your pick between a sushi-eating contest and/or an eggroll-eating contest in which the grand champion takes home a t-shirt and trophy (and perhaps a bit of a stomach ache, too).
And, of course, we would be remiss to leave off the oh-so-popular sumo wrestling competitions where participants battle each other inside inflatable sumo wrestler costumes [Take a sec to visualize that one].
"One of the things we're doing again this year are the Asiatown Bus Tours, which were very popular. It got to the point last year where we needed to have two buses - one wasn't enough," Wu said.
For that reason, the Cleveland Asian Festival will now offer two buses that will take visitors on a guided tour of Asiatown to explore the neighborhood's businesses, restaurants and development.
The fun doesn't stop there. Visitors and locals also can check out:
- The Health Pavilion - Free health screenings and tests from Cleveland's most notable healthcare institutions
- Cosplay 101 - Massively popular one-day class on the art of cosplay
- The Children's Pavilion - Games, activities and vendors just for the kiddos
- Colors of Asia - Fashion exhibition featuring the diverse threads of Asia
- Merchandise Vendors - Popular fair of local merchants selling handmade wears and other products
Visitors to the Cleveland Asian Festival are encouraged to utilize the free parking available at the Cleveland State University parking lot off Payne Avenue. From there, festivalgoers may either walk the three blocks to the festival or take a free shuttle.
So, dear readers, what's getting you to the 2016 Cleveland Asian Festival?